On November 28th in Nyon the draw for the under-19 European Championship qualifiers due to be held next October threw up the match that nobody wanted, the administrators dreaded, and that nobody in European football seems willing to take responsibility for.
UEFA’s response has been to take the unprecedented step of re-drawing part of the competition, side-stepping the problem rather than confronting it. But then Armenia and Azerbaijan have long since proved their relationship to be unmanageable on a footballing level, either between themselves or by an arbiter, and since the first major breakdown of relations back in 2006 the disasters have piled up.
The bitter gridlock between the two young republics that saturates the frozen conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh mountain range continues to cause headaches for diplomats and preserve personal tragedy for civilians but football, true to its dogmatic hyperbole that it can cause social groundswell like no other man-made force, has caused the most conspicuous movements in recent years in this most static of disputes, though none of them towards progress.
Frequent border skirmishes keep the stand-off on the periphery of international attention but otherwise the conflict remains stagnant, shoe-horned into the increasingly combustible quasi-Cold War agenda between Russia and the West that has seen Kiev fall into civic meltdown and threatens the economic recoveries of the recession former-Soviet bloc. In the end war will probably be prevented in Nagorno-Karabakh by what the two parties fear they have to lose through belligerence. Football – its utility cowed and its governors prosaic – looks set to continue to lose out also.
The pairing of Armenia and Azerbaijan for next year’s qualifiers brought back uncomfortable memories of the last time the two sides came out of the hat together for a previous under-19 match back in the autumn of 2006. The crowd that day, buoyed by partisan strands of Armenian Cypriots in Nicosia, reacted angrily to obscene gestures and provocations made by the young Azeri players, storming the pitch to confront the team in a disturbance that took police over half an hour to subdue.
Since the match was played on neutral ground and the fans involved couldn’t be proved in any official sense to be the responsibility of the Armenian FA no charges were ever brought, but the incident augured badly enough for next year’s qualifiers that the balls from the draw were gathered up and tossed back into the hat.
Also clear from the Cyprus riot is how fervently the mutual ill-feeling is felt amongst ex-pat communities, for whom the Armenia-Azerbaijan divide – sometimes lazily framed as a Christian-Islamic feud but actually bearing the hallmarks of the struggles for self-determination that pock-marked the end of the last century – forms a definitive part of a national identity.
Whether on a football pitch in Nicosia or a diplomatic summit in Minsk – from where Russia, France and the US still sporadically try to arbitrate the war – the shockwaves from Nagorno-Karabakh resonate far beyond the enclave’s modestly picturesque foothills.
Those few that still populate the mountains – the 2006 estimate of 138,000 is wilting as young Armenians migrate en masse from the shrinking agricultural economy into urban Russia – have their lives coloured by the memory of the 30,000 or more that perished in the war that followed the break-up of the Soviet empire.
Both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan suffered a refugee crisis, and the mass displacement that occurred as each became inhospitable no-go zones for persecuted minorities is still felt today, as thousands in surrounding villages continue to stare up into the hills at their homes being used to house occupying forces.
A return to all-out conflict seems unlikely, in spite of border clashes that have recently become so frequent that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up in Yerevan last year to make the case for détente. The Azeri state has been slowly growing its armed forces in terms of investment and personnel but the most immediate threat is being felt by the hamstrung economies of Armenia and the Karabakh region, for which the isolation imposed by the stand-off continues to stymy any real hope of desperately needed modernisation.With diplomatic tensions high but willingness to take action low it’s small wonder that the most visible demonstrations in recent years have been made through football.
Or, rather, a lack of it. A few months before the trouble in Cyprus the 2006 CIS Cup was rocked when Armenian champions Pyunik refused to face Azerbaijan’s Neftchi Baku in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on security grounds, claiming the safety of the club’s players and fans couldn’t be guaranteed.
Neftchi countered and so too did the organisers who gave written assurances that extra provisions would be made to minimise any risk of unrest, but Pyunik rejected the plea and flew home on the morning of the match.
The Russian Football Union was bullish in its response: “Such actions do not represent football, which aims to unite not divide people.” A year later when the senior national sides were due to meet in back-to-back Euro 2008 qualifiers the Azeri refused to face an Armenian team on home soil, in spite of the latter volunteering to foot the bill for security in both fixtures. Azerbaijan offered to play the games on neutral territory, Armenia vetoed the proposal and UEFA played the only card it had left and simply cancelled both matches.
For the Azeri the prospect of hosting the Armenians was akin to welcoming the sporting representatives of an occupying force, which for a nation that keeps its citizens in check by pedalling an almost Stalinesque cult of personality via a fiercely nationalist regime was never likely to receive moral or political sanction.
In the end the cancelled matches and subsequent lost points had little impact on the outcome of qualification. Armenia had just taken seven points from three tough games and would have fancied themselves for six more, but a solitary draw against Serbia in their final five games meant they finished well adrift of the cut-off for the finals. But five years of rapid progress has seen the team come within two points of a play-off berth in each of the last two qualifying campaigns and six lost points would represent a major blow in future competitions as Armenia seek to become just the fourth former-Soviet state to make it to a major finals.
The feeling in some corners is that UEFA need to work harder to find a football-based solution – it would be a shame if progress were to be hindered by the feuding of two states who feel so penned in by circumstance that football is the only outlet for exercising their frustrations.
But Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in check for so long now it’s hard to see a way out for either side, even if the will was there. Armenia’s military clout is dwarfed by the Azeri and no offensive could realistically happen without being sanctioned from Moscow, yet the hostilities continue to shackle fiscal recovery.
On the other hand Azeri president Ilham Aliyev knows that the longer Nagorno-Karabakh remains occupied the more pressure falls on him to stand up for national pride – but at the risk of derailing the only former-Soviet economy to have remained untouched by the global recession and inviting hostility from Russia. It seems a shame that the footballers won’t get their chance to show the diplomats it’s not all about one-upmanship.
By Robert O’Connor